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Dr. Rachel Epp Buller: Writing, Walking and Listening as UN/making

Welcome back to The UN/maker interview series that features creatives who consciously take up methods of un/making as part of their practice to help disrupt anthropogenic, perspectives and gestures towards land. For those of you who were not able to attend the online talk with Dr. Michelle Wilson, her recorded interview is now available on Youtube. This week I had the opportunity to speak with Rachel Epp Buller for what I would consider to be inspirational work around speculative letter writing.

Image description: White woman with long wavy strawberry blonde hair pictured looking downward while sitting on a chair stitching embroider into a white cloth stretched over a embroidery hoop.  Wearing a black sweater and a paisley scarf, the woman is pulling a green thread into the air after making a stitch. She sits in front of other embroidered texts that hang on the wall behind her.
Rachel Epp Buller, Taking Care, performance of listening in words and embroidery. In/Visible Care exhibition at Outlook Gallery, Minnesota Center for Book Arts, 2022. Photo credit: Anne Labovitz

As a brief introduction, Rachel Epp Buller is a visual artist, feminist, art historian, professor and mother of three who holds a PhD in art history and an MFA in creative practice. . Her current writing and artistic research explores slow practices, such as walking and stitching, with a particular focus on letter-writing as an act of relational care and a radical intervention into practices of academic scholarship. Also regularly reviewing books and exhibitions for Woman’s Art Journal, Hyperallergic, and other journals, Rachel is a board member of the National Women’s Caucus for Art, a certified practitioner in Deep Listening, a Professor of Visual Arts and Design at Bethel College (KS/US), and exhibits and speaks about her work internationally. To read more about her practice and all of her acheivements, visit Rachel's website.

Jill: Rachel, thank you so much for taking time out from your busy and impressive schedule for this interview! In your brief bio above, letter-writing is referred to as an act of relational care and a radical intervention into practices of academic scholarship. I was wondering if you could start off by providing us a little bit of a context on how you arrived at letter writing as a practice and how you see it as a method to help unmake or disrupt industrial capitalism, technological colonialism, or other aspects of our highly accelerated and increasingly virtual worlds?

Rachel: I am a lifelong letter writer, and I come from a long line of letter writers, so this material form has always been part of my way of being in the world. There are so many elements that draw me to the epistolary form: the physical gesture, the material remnants, the slow time of exchange, and the opportunity to revisit relationships and conversations. It was not until I returned to graduate school to pursue an MFA in Creative Practice that I began to see the form’s possibilities for artistic and academic exchange. One of the most powerful possibilities I see in the letter form is an invitation to enter into a listening relationship. Letters can be a reaching out, a request to be listened to with the implicit understanding that the sender will listen to the receiver in exchange, if and when the receiver should respond. But it is a patient form. A letter sent through the post resists the technological immediacy and concomitant demands implied by, emails, texts, or instant messages.

Within academic scholarship, I’ve experimented with the letter as a mode of changing the manner of discourse between thinkers. Not to say that letters haven’t existed in academia. There is, in fact, a long tradition of public letters where one scholar might publish an open letter to another scholar, taking issue with an idea or interpretation, and using a widely-read journal to make one’s case and/or air one’s grievances. But in that mode, the letter becomes a vehicle for contention rather than for actual discussion. Public letters, I wager, are not often written with the intention of reciprocal listening.

In my own research, I’ve turned to the letter to facilitate dialogue with other artists and scholars - testing out new ideas or searching out nuances in established ones. My MFA thesis of 2018 was written entirely in letters, and in lieu of footnotes, I handwrote personal letters of citation to each artist, scholar or their heirs, whose work I cited within the thesis.(i) In 2019, I published an essay with Lena Simic and Emily Underwood-Lee based on an 18-month round-robin transatlantic correspondence, in which we thought through ideas together across extended time and space.(ii) The relational mode extends, I think, to the reader as well when letters are published as academic writing: letters in this form might well tackle weighty issues, but the personal address invites readers to enter into the discussion both because of its contrast to the closed nature of much academic prose, and also allows readers to imagine themselves as the letter’s recipients.

Photograph of multiple sheets of multi-coloured marble paper used for letter writing.
Rachel Epp Buller, marbled papers used in Pandemic Epistles, 2020-21

As an artistic medium, the epistolary form can privilege relational exchange in ways that resist expectations of capitalist productivity. Some of my work that involves letters circumvents the commodification tendency by embracing the nature of the form itself. During 2020-21, I embarked on a project titled Pandemic Epistles, a practice of daily listening and connection through letters. Every day for a year, from March 2020 to March 2021, I wrote letters on papers that I had marbled in the backyard, walked to the post box, and mailed off these invitations to listen. And

while I received many letters in return, and have maintained several regular correspondences from that project, the original gestures of text on marbled paper were all dispersed. The point was never to commodify, but rather to initiate and maintain relational connections in a time of pandemic isolation and disorientation.

Jill: Whoa. That's a lot of letter writing. Thank you for such an in-depth explanation! I wonder, did your PhD in art history inform or help you to unmake yourself from materials and modes of representation and presentation associated with European traditions of fine art, or were you always drawn to smaller, slower and more ephemeral modes of creative expression?

Rachel: That’s a great question, because it was actually just the opposite. My education has been wide-ranging. As an undergraduate, I fully embraced the liberal arts mindset and studied many things, earning degrees in History, Studio Art, and German. Immediately following that, I went on for an MA and then PhD in Art History, a program of study that I imagined would combine my multiple interests. And it did, to an extent, but it was also a narrowing, as any graduate study is, with professors making clear to me early on that “making” of any kind would be irrelevant to my training as a serious art historian. So I gave up on the studio art side of my life for years and fully committed myself to academic writing and research. Once I finished school, I returned to making, but it always felt “on the side” and disconnected from my “real” work. It was not until a decade later when I returned to graduate school to pursue an MFA, that I learned to unmake those imposed disciplinary boundaries and instead find ways to trouble them by working through and across them.

Jill: Right! I forgot how many other disciplines limit our scope and approach to learning. That being said, In 2021, you offered an amazing workshop entitled Listening Across Time through Epistolary Praxis in partnership with CoLab: Research-creation + Social Justice Collaboratory out of Alberta. For me that workshop really opened up how I could go about communicating research. Can you briefly outline the three different speculative writing exercises you facilitated for the group and what these exercises were designed to potentially unmake for those participating?

Rachel: Sure—that workshop brought together such a wonderful, generative group of creatives and I have to thank Natalie Loveless for inviting me to lead those sessions. Over the course of a week, with two long virtual sessions at the beginning and end, and some days in between to work, think, and offer peer feedback, we explored together how the letter as a mode of address might allow us to communicate in different ways across temporal divides. In the first exercise, I asked participants to write a letter to the past—to an ancestor, for example, or to their own former self, or a letter in the voice of someone from the past. Next, I asked them to create a letter as a form of listening in the present, first to answer the question, “Who or what needs your listening attention?,” and also to determine something about the recipient as well as the creative form. Finally, we discussed ways of thinking toward and engaging with possible futures, and the task was to write or create a letter that urgently needs to be sent, again considering which possible recipients most require our listening attention. For each exercise, I encouraged participants to consider what form their letter would take: Written words on a page? A performance, read aloud? Words written in sand or snow? Words going up in smoke after reading? As you probably remember Jill, we witnessed a wealth of creative interpretations. As I think back on them, many of them unmade the letter form itself, reconsidering what a “letter” can be, as well as rethinking who or what might be open to receiving a letter, and to what end.

A picture of purple handmade paper carefully hand stitched with the word fondly in cursive  script with yellow embroidery thread
Rachel Epp Buller, Fondly, from Valedictions series, 2019. Embroidery on handmade paper.

Jill: Yes people were much more creative than I could have imagined and really expanded my understanding of letter writing and its physical and deliverable forms. Has your research into the praxis of letter writing revealed other things that get unmade or disrupted by people choosing to slow down and write letters to living or in some cases, nonliving things.

Rachel: One of the pieces that came out of the workshop, Christa Donner’s Dear Human, is a great example of this. She conjures a series of letters, writing speculatively from the perspective of multispecies inhabitants of the West Ridge Nature Preserve in Chicago: deer, pond, tree, and tick address the humans who enter their space. These are layered letters: Donner records each letter as an audio file, which are then accessed via QR code by visitors who come to walk at the nature preserve. They walk, they listen, they become more attuned to their ecological kin in that place. She transforms the letter into an auditory experience, disrupts our assumptions of who can speak / write, and creates an experience that facilitates slowness, walking, and listening. I have to read in this work an implied goal of greater ecological awareness and activism, for if we get out of our cars and walk, and we listen closely to what our multispecies kin have to tell us, then surely we humans will be moved on some level to change our destructive ways of being.

Jill: Yes, I agree! I think what many might not understand is how important scientific, historical or observational research is when writing from another perspective. Can you talk a little bit about research-creation as a method of unmaking and how this can impact writing.

An installation of several pieces of paper hanging from the ceiling  with symbols and text on them and an arrangement of black book works in the background.
Rachel Epp Buller, Keep still. wait. this is the moment of no turning back, 2021. From After the End of the End of the World, a collaborative exhibition with Derek Owens based on a year-long correspondence and exchange of words.

Rachel: I think research-creation is what I was seeking for years, without even realizing it. As Natalie Loveless describes it in her book, How to Make Art at the End of the World, research-creation is a methodology that moves “beyond primary accountability to a specific discipline while still keeping the door open to discipline-specific knowledge. Simply put, it place[s] the curiosity-driven question first” (2019, p 25) This of course appeals to me because of my own multimodal research practice, in the way that it unmakes strict disciplinary divisions and expectations. Even further, though, I find that the critical issues that most concern me, like slowness and listening, are already explored widely across disciplines, with single affinity to none, so it makes most sense to begin with “the curiosity-driven question” and then determine the best form(s) for tackling the research. In my own writing, this has taken shape as I have sought to determine the best voices and genres for given areas of my research. As I mentioned, I have incorporated the letter form in a variety of my publications. Letters most often involve exchange, so some of this writing unmakes the academic privileging (at least in the humanities) of single-authorship. In an epistolary piece I co-wrote with Derek Owens, we removed any identification of whose words were whose, instead prioritizing the idea of a back-and-forth through letters.(iii)

Jill: I find that interesting that the two of you chose to relinquish your individual authorship, or one might say ego, to ensure that the art of exchange and listening came to the forefront. Is there anything else you have had to unmake about yourself through research, interacting with others, or the creative process of letter writing?

Rachel: Expectations of self is a big one. I find value in duration, repetition, sustaining in different ways for the long haul and waiting in periods of quiet anticipation. Letters of course echo many of these points. The more I embrace the practice of writing letters, the more I am able to unmake expectations and uncover the generative aspects of duration and delay, waiting and anticipation. Additionally, as my bio indicates, I wear a variety of professional hats and have wide-ranging interests on top of being a committed caregiver. I think many women of my generation were raised with the idea of “doing it all,” after second-wave feminists worked so hard to open doors for us. But what I’ve come to accept for myself over time is that I might be “doing it all,” but I likely won’t be doing it all at the same time. There are seasons and cycles when some areas take priority over others, or some demands are louder and more insistent than others. Then there are those moments when my own interests shift and I make choices about which kinds of research to privilege.

A drawing of two hands thread in an embroidery needle created from words
Rachel Epp Buller, Letters to the Future #2, 2018 Ink/word drawing.

Jill: If you think about the commercial art world and how it upholds stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be a successful artist, what else have you had to unmake, relinquish, resist, refuse or refrain from in order to work the way you do?

Rachel Epp Buller, Taking Care, a participatory project of listening in words and thread. Installation view, Borough Road Gallery, London, 2019.

Rachel: Probably my biggest resistance has been to the production mentality of the commercial art world. I think I used to feel insecure that I wasn’t making more “stuff.” I’m a very slow maker in comparison to my highly productive artist friends who constantly make new work for exhibitions and festival or art fair circuits. I do love to make objects, certainly, and I relish processes like printmaking, book arts, and embroidery, but so much of my work is conceptually driven. There may be objects attached to the some of the ideas, which might be sold, but so often my primary interest is relational exchange within the creative process. I continue to unmake my own learned expectations of who an artist is and what an artist does as I deepen into creating the kind of work that feels urgent to me and I hope speaks to others as well.

Jill: I think you told me that you are now in the early stages of writing a book on listening as artistic practice, and it incorporates letters as well as instructional scores, alongside and within critical discussions. Could you share a little about the walking or listening methods you speak of and how you see either of these helping to unmake anthropogenic perspectives or gestures towards land?

Rachel: Much of my current research investigates how listening might be enacted and/or facilitated by specific artistic gestures. As a certified practitioner in Deep Listening, I follow Pauline Oliveros proposition that we might listen in ways that involve more than just our ears as listening is a whole-body experience. My artistic inquiries propose modes of listening through hands and feet, letter-writing and walking, stitching and drawing. In Winter/Spring 2022, when I had the good fortune to be a Fulbright Canada Research Chair in Arts and Humanities at the University of Alberta, I carried out a daily practice of walking as a way to listen in a new-to-me place and with the land and its inhabitants. I set myself a score for Winter Walking (2022):

On many of my daily walks, I walked by myself in the North Saskatchewan River Valley. Occasionally I passed other humans on my walks, but more often I found myself attuning to the creaking trees, calling magpies, howling coyotes, dripping snowmelt, where my footsteps in crunching snow were but one of many elements in the sonic landscape. I learned through walks with Indigenous education professor Dwayne Donald and studied his writing on walking in the land as a reparative gesture that helps us recognize and strengthen relations with our ecological kin. Donald writes, “By walking and listening, people begin to perceive the life around themselves differently. They feel enmeshed in relationships.”(iv)

Through a practice of daily walking, I experienced a move from generality to specificity. The idea of “tree” transformed into individual, distinctive trees, whose personalities I came to recognize and notice as they changed with the weather. I perceived the life around me differently. While on my walks I watched dozens of snowshoe hares hopping around my neighborhood. Then, once home, I was able to watch the hare who nested for weeks in the snowbank outside my window, watching me as I watched him. Walking and/as listening has become for me a vehicle for paying attention in daily, specific ways to the lands that I inhabit, and in continually trying to recognize myself as one inhabitant among many, seen and unseen.

Jill: Your practice seems to point to how nature is the earliest form of an audio book! Speaking of audio books, are there any other books, essays, blogs, or podcasts you would recommend to help unsettle the visual arts and promote more ethical practices of care?

Rachel Epp Buller, “A Score for Seasonal Listening,” 2022. Day 92 in A Year of Deep Listening, Center for Deep Listening

Rachel: I am always seeking out transdisciplinary projects that speak to my central concerns. Recently, some of my favorite books have been Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, a book that beautifully calls for shifting our attentions and intentions; the collectively written Care Manifesto that lays out our interdependence and what survival demands of caring relations; Octavia Butler’s Earthseed trilogy, which helps us imagine future caring relations; Simon Garfield’s To the Letter, a social history of the epistolary form; Richard Power’s novel The Overstory that outlines the histories and sentient relations between, and facilitated by trees; and Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber’s The Slow Professor. This book provides prompts for how to change our ways of being in higher education. I also really appreciate The Year of Deep Listening initiated by Stephanie Loveless at the Center for Deep Listening, in honor of Pauline Oliveros’ 90th birthday. I feel grateful that one of my listening scores was featured as part of this project on day 92.

Jill: Where are you witnessing other positive examples of unmaking happening within your extended community?

Rachel: Megan Arney Johnston’s concept of Slow Curating, a phrase she coined in 2016, privileges the relational possibilities of curating and seeks to unmake the notion of expertise. Certainly, art historians and museum curators generally have trained expertise in their fields, but Johnston’s curatorial experiments show how other forms of expertise, from lived experience to community collaboration, might equally be positions from which to curate and engage broader publics.

Many of the artistic projects I find engaging prioritize participatory engagements that shift our attentions or work to disrupt cultural expectations. I’ll offer just two here. In 2020, US/Berlin artist Christine Sun Kim created Dear Essential Workers, a Times Square digital billboard installation visualizing sound and creating a kind of connective, public listening in a time of isolation. Drawing connections between musical notation and the gestures of American Sign Language that are equivalent to “sound” in deaf culture, Kim orchestrated community listening through a shared participatory sound engagement. One other example I’m thinking about is Tricia Hersey’s The Nap Ministry. In a public and private performance practice, Hersey advocates for regular pauses—naps—as a necessary antidote to centuries of racial trauma that actively resists the work-based values of capitalism and white supremacy. Through collective napping events, as well as her own personal commitment to daily rest, her Nap Ministry promotes rest as a form of relational community care learned by listening across time with her ancestors.

Jill: I love napping as it helps me process information, but like everything else, it is always at risk of being quantified and commodified in order to ensure productivity and profits. Ugh. Okay, last question, and thanks again for your time and generousity while responding to these questions. If more artists are to relinquish commodity driven approaches to art making and take up gestures of care and repair, what else needs to be urgently unmade in the world, or more specifically the art world, today?

Rachel: Already more than 30 years ago, Tronto and Fisher noted that we desperately need to “take care”of and “repair” our world if we hope to “live in it as well as possible” (1990), and I see how this applies not just to crises on a global scale but also more specifically in relation to art. We’ve known for a long time that “the art world,” as it currently stands, is an unsustainable financial model. Art cannot be an endless financial growth engine, and tying art to capitalism in that way effectively undermines any social power it might have. Artists have a vital role to play in changing our human and more-than-human relations—by working locally and collaboratively to model gestures and facilitate experiences that sound warnings, open up new ways of seeing and thinking, provide entry points into difficult issues, and begin to shift mindsets.

Rachel Epp Buller leading a workshop in which several people are using their hands to manipulate string.
Rachel Epp Buller, Patterns in our Hands workshop, 2018. Flutgraben artist space, Berlin


i Rachel Epp Buller, “Dear Friend: A Thesis in/of Letters.” Master’s thesis. Plymouth, UK: University of Plymouth, Transart Institute, 2018.

ii Rachel Epp Buller, Lena Simic, and Emily Underwood-Lee, “The Body in Letters: Once Again, Through Time and Space.” In Buller and Reeve (eds.), Inappropriate Bodies: Maternity, Art, and Design. (Demeter Press, 2019): pp. 331-344.

iii Rachel Epp Buller and Derek Owens, “’our hopes lie in a time of alliances’: epistolary praxis and transdisciplinary composing.” Something Other journal, special issue On Correspondence. (December 2018).

iv Dwayne Donald, “We Need a New Story: Walking and the wahkohtowin Imagination,” Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, vol. 18, no.2 (2021): 61.



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